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The Customer Is King

Stop Sign Crying

In France, the saying goes that “le client est roi”. But in fact, the customer is anything but a king: at worse he is an idiot, at best he is a minor annoyance in your day. As this funny article on “How to play the French service game … and win” explains: “The customer is king. But we all know what they did to their royal family. The guillotined head of Louis XVI bounced across the Place de la Concorde as a few thousand Parisians laughed at it”.

I wish I could tell you foreigners have the wrong impression and that French customer service is actually top-notch – but I’d be lying. The only thing I can tell you to make you feel better as a foreigner in France is that not just tourists experience bad customer service. French don’t discriminate. Everyone is treated like shit.

To eat or just have a drink, you will have to play the passive-aggressive game. Never wait to be seated, even if a sign reads just that. And since you are at it, grab the menus yourself, you will save at least 30 minutes. Never ask for food or drink suggestions: look like you know what you are doing, even if you have no clue what these complicated dishes are. It’s not like the part-time underpaid waiter will know more than you anyway. Don’t expect waiters to be cheery, happy or just friendly. Their job is to bring you food and the bill – consider yourself lucky if you can get just that done. Oh and never go out to eat if you are in hurry (for instance, hoping to catch a movie afterwards). I can’t tell you how many movies I have missed just because I wanted to grab something to eat beforehand… And note that fast-food joints aren’t that fast — that would include “Quick”, don’t let yourself be fooled by the name.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by North-American style customer service. I admit it: when I first came to Canada, I hated it. I found people sounded “fake”. In my mind, there was no way Starbucks employee could be that perky serving coffee to an endless queue of grumpy customers from 5 am to 12 pm. And why would McDonalds’ employees apologize for the occasional 10 minutes wait? Didn’t they all hate their employer, like in France? To me, service in restaurants was way too personal: I didn’t like the way the waiter or the waitress would show up unexpectedly at the table after bringing the food to ask if everything was alright. I found the bill came way too fast too: it was almost as if they wanted us to free a table as soon as possible (which they probably did).

But of course, now I’m used to it. Only when I go back to Europe I get super-annoyed at the inefficient and unfriendly customer service.

Another annoying side of the French customer service is that you must pay to complain or have a problem solved, because of premium-rate phone numbers. Let’s say your Internet connection suddenly stops working: you must pay about 0.15 €/minute to hopefully have it fixed. Even the unemployment office uses a premium-rate phone number! Reaching someone isn’t easy either: customers are often put on hold for a long time before being connected (and of course, you are paying for this wait time). It’s often hard to get through because post-sales support, general customer service and public administration have very restricted business hours, typically from 8 am to 5 pm. And of course, they may be closed on WE.

In North America, almost all businesses offer a 1-800 number, which is a toll-free phone number. Business hours are much longer to accommodate everyone (and several time-zones). And most surprising to me, employees seem to really want to solve whatever problem you may have and keep your business.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I sent Skechers, the shoes company, an email. I had bought a pair of pumps for work, barely wore them and yet the sole was already damaged. I was pretty annoyed because shoes are relatively expensive. Plus, between us, I hate shopping for shoes.

The company replied pretty fast and was willing to solve the problem. A couple of emails later, I was offered to choose a new pair of shoes on their website. They took care of everything and the shoes were delivered right to me door. Ah, American-style customer service!

Sometimes it is worth complaining politely to get something done — another thing I learned to do in North America.

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